North Korea appoints ‘reformer’ to top leadership post (but don’t get your hopes up)

April 1, 2013

A 2005 photo shows North Korean Premier Pak Pong Ju on a tour of Chinese development projects in Shanghai. (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea has appointed Pak Pong Ju, known as a reformer, as the country's next premier, a job that officially makes him the head the national government. How big of a deal is this? Is Kim Jong Un signaling his desire to finally open up North Korea to the world? Sadly, we should probably set our expectations for "reform" pretty low.

There are not many senior North Korean officials with a reformist reputation. Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea-watcher and fellow at Leeds University, called him "North Korea's sole certified reformer." He won this reputation during his last stint as premier, from 2003 to 2007, when he was in charge of liberalizing the economy by allowing more private farming (collectivized agriculture gives the government greater control but tends to produce local foot shortages and possibly micro-famine conditions, which is as bad as it sounds) and internal trade that would be a touch freer.

In 2002, the year before he took over as premier, Pak famously toured South Korean industrial facilities, which seemed to suggest an interest in greater trade with the South and in industrialization. He's traveled to China, where he toured state-run development projects, prompting speculation that he's interested in adopting Chinese-style reforms.

But Pak, whatever his ambition for reform, didn't really live up to the world's hopes last time around. Though he was sometimes compared to the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who transformed China in the early 1990s by liberalizing its economy, the two countries are more different than they might sometimes appear.

North Korea's state ideology is about much, much more than socialism or command economics; it's first and foremost about the fervent worship of the Kim family regime. Pyongyang's governance style is what's called "military-first." Whereas almost every other country on Earth is "economy-first," meaning that maintaining a good economy is the top priority, North Korea's economy is secondary to the health and power of its military. This is served, in part, by maintaining a war footing and playing up the danger of outside threats. It's really hard to liberalize your economy when you're busy orchestrating one episode of nuclear brinksmanship after another. And a liberalized economy is one that takes a little bit of power away from the generals and hands it to the marketplace.

Perhaps the best reason to suspect that North Korean reform is not just around the corner is the fact that it could undermine the state ideology. Kim's father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, are played up constantly in North Korean propaganda as the godlike architects of their country's flawless system. As Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group wrote, "Reform in [North] Korea would require questioning what the greatest geniuses in history did wrong, and then changing it." This is not a system that is equipped to handle change.

There was one famous instance of North Korean economic reform. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow's all-important subsidies to North Korea contributed, along with other factors, to a terrible famine that brought the country as close to collapse as it's ever been. In apparent response, Pyongyang began allowing more black market activity, both across the Chinese border and in domestic trade. Some observers predicted that this de factor liberalization would lead to greater reform or, possibly, the outright collapse of the North Korean system. Neither really happened.

So, what does all of this mean? What should we expect from Pak? The safest guess, as always with North Korea, is the status quo. But it's also plausible that Pak could see through some of the previously announced but stalled reforms, particularly with regards to food and agriculture. In July 2012, the state announced "the June 28 Policy," which would allow more cooperative farming. In recent months, North Korea has appeared to take steps in the direction of the June 28 Policy. The Crisis Group's Pinkston says it's possible that Pak might be able to push this through and achieve some "marginal gains" on food production.

This could potentially help North Korea grow a bit more food, which would be good news for its impoverished and sometimes hungry citizens. But it's a safe bet that Pak is not about to implement Chinese-style economic reforms.

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